The Sex Doctors are In

Porn, and the thin line between Pleasure and Problem

Posted by Ian Kerner, Ph.D., LMFT

Is porn just a quick way to blow off some sexual steam? Or is it damaging to your relationship? My short answer: It can be both. Here's why.

First off, masturbation is a healthy activity. When couples are in good relationships, they actually tend to masturbate more than when they're not. Masturbation is not something people do just because they're "not getting any"--it's something we do because it's human and healthy. In fact, when people stop masturbating, it's generally a bad sign: it can mean they're depressed or have a health problem. Given this, in a healthy relationship, there's nothing wrong with porn. It's just a form of masturbation-material: a visual fantasy. And when couples share porn together, it can make them even more excited about sex with each other and be a strong bonding experience.

Porn can also be a healthy way of exploring forbidden taboos. Fantasies are fantasies for a reason, because they're not real. So if a guy (or a woman) is interested in fetish porn, bondage, domination, or anything, it's a chance to explore things that he or she normally doesn't get to explore. People should not be judged on the porn they enjoy, and there usually isn't always a direct relationship between the stuff we look at and the stuff we actually want to try.

Porn can also teach us about our unique turn-ons and turn-offs: You may find that domination really appeals to you, for example, and you'd like to share a fantasy about it with your partner, or even experiment with it. Porn is generally a pretty extreme version of a fantasy, which is why it can be so threatening to a partner, but there are usually ways to dip a toe in the water without jumping into the deep end. For example, bondage porn often involves sex-slaves in extreme situations, but that doesn't mean there isn't a way to explore some light bondage within a trusting relationship.

Sometimes porn can even tell you something about yourself that you didn't know or help you identify an emotional need that isn't being met. Being tied and bound can represent a need to be hugged. There isn't a precise science to this, just the idea that our fantasies--the ones we spontaneously imagine in our heads, as well as the ones we seek out via porn--can tell us something about our unmet emotional needs.

So, all in all, porn is just a healthy expression of sexuality for many people. But when is it a problem?

Well, first off, it can be a relatively minor problem. Maybe a guy has easy access to his computer and masturbates to porn once a day, or every other day, simply because it's there. But then he's a little less motivated to have sex with his partner. It reduces his incentive. I've seen this with plenty of guys, especially older ones. They kind of squander their mojo. They still love their partners, and if they hadn't masturbated they might be more inclined to engage their partners and pursue real sex.

It's also a problem when a guy starts to feel like masturbating to porn is easier than having sex. Less work, less hassle--so he gets lazy about his relationship. He's not working as hard to have sex. He's not being as romantic or as focused on his partner. The relationship, in and out of the bedroom, starts to suffer.

Porn starts to become a bigger problem when a man is tuned out of his relationship and uses masturbation to avoid sex, or as a substitute for sex. In the end, you have to have the kind of relationship that inspires you to want to have sex with your partner, so if you're angry at your partner, or not working hard to attract your partner anymore, porn can become a substitute. I also see this with plenty of new dads for example: After having a baby, it's hands-off their partner for a couple of months--so they get hands-on with themselves and get into a pattern. And a lot of moms are so tired, and channeling so much energy into the baby, they're all too happy to turn a blind eye to their husband's porn use. 

I've also seen porn become a problem for single men, who are not dating and who masturbate heavily. That's fine, except when those guys start to withdraw and pull back from women, and porn starts to reinforce their disconnection. The same thing happens with guys who avoid intimacy because they suffer from a sexual problem like premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction. For these men, porn is part of a cycle of withdrawal and depression.

Porn can also be troubling when a guy gets so used to the visual stimulation it provides that he has a hard time concentrating on the sex he's actually having. It's also becoming more common for men to develop idiosyncratic masturbatory, something I've written about previously in this column: Is Too Much Porn Messing With Your Sex Skills? Many men aren't aware this can happen and aren't sure why they're experiencing this problem.

I'm often asked if porn is addictive. Well, addiction is a strong word. Yes, it provides instant gratification and can be habit-forming, but I don't think there's a true comparison between porn and addictive substances like drugs. We may like to compare porn to drugs, but it's not a drug. "Addiction" applies to a small percentage of the people who use porn. To me, porn is a bit like alcohol. In my own life, I've been able to enjoy and manage my use of alcohol fairly consistently. Sure, there are a lot of alcoholics out there, but there are just as many of us, if not more, who can enjoy alcohol responsibly.

Of course, that's little comfort to a woman who's concerned about her male partner's use of porn. She may have a lot questions about her guy's porn use: Is he into something really kinky, does he want me to look different, should I be performing, etc. In truth, a guy often isn't thinking any of these things--he's just enjoying some porn and that's about it. But if these silent questions build over time they can really damage a relationship.

My solution? Talk about it. Once couples start discussing porn, it's a stimulus to their relationship--to sharing fantasies, talking about likes and dislikes, and more. Also, it doesn't hurt to remember that there was a time before porn, or at least when porn was not so easily accessible to the average person. Sure, guys turned to magazines or videos. But they also relied on their imaginations and their erotic memories. To me, that is one of the biggest downsides of porn. So consider taking a break from porn and letting your imagination be your guide--you might be surprised where it takes you.

Have more questions about porn and the blurry line between pleasure and problem? Visit me at Good in Bed, where I'll be weighing in on this and other issues all week.